Peithô's Web   Lives index  
THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF BION



I. BION was a native of the country around the Borysthenes; but as to who his parents were, and to what circumstances it was owing that he applied himself to the study of philosophy, we know no more than what he himself told Antigonus. For when Antigonus asked him:--

What art thou, say! from whence, from whom you came,
Who are your parents? tell thy race, thy name;
        (Hom. Od. x. 335. Pope's Version, 387.)

He, knowing that he had been misrepresented to the king, said to him, "My father was a freedman, who used to wipe his mouth with his sleeve," (by which he meant that he used to sell salt fish). "As to his race, he was a native of the district of the Borysthenes; having no countenance, but only a brand in his face, a token of the bitter cruelty of his master. My mother was such a woman as a man of that condition might marry, taken out of a brothel. Then, my father being in arrears to the tax-gatherers, was sold with all his family, and with me among them; and as I was young and good looking, a certain orator purchased me, and when he died he left me everything. And I, having burnt all his books, and torn up all his papers, came to Athens and applied myself to the study of Philosophy:

Such was my father, and from him I came,
The honoured author of my birth and name.
        (Hom. Il. vi. 211. Pope's Version, 254.)

This is all that I can tell you of myself: so that Persaeus and Philonides may give up telling these stories about me: and you may judge of me on my own merits."

II. And Bion was truly a man of great versatility, and a very subtle philosopher, and a man who gave all who chose great opportunities of practising philosophy. In some respects he was of a gentle disposition, and very much inclined to indulge in vanity.

III. And he left behind him many memorials of himself in the way of writings, and also many apophthegms full of useful sentiments. As for instance, once when he was reproved for having failed to charm a young man, he replied, "You cannot possibly draw up cheese with a hook before it has got hard." On another occasion he was asked who was the most miserable of men, and replied, "He who has set his heart on the greatest prosperity." When he was asked whether it was advisable to marry (for this answer also is attributed to him), he replied, "If you marry an ugly woman you will have a punishment (poinê), and if a handsome woman you will have one who is common" (koinê). He called old age a port to shelter one from misfortune; and accordingly, he said that every one fled to it. He said that glory was the mother of years; that beauty was a good which concerned others rather than one's self; that riches were the sinews of business. To a man who had squandered his estate he said "The earth swallowed up Amphiaraus, but you have swallowed up the earth." Another saying of his was that it was a great evil not to be able to bear evil. And he condemned those who burnt the dead as though they felt nothing, and then mocked them as though they did feel. And he was always saying that it was better to put one's own beauty at the disposal of another, than to covet the beauty of others; for that one who did so was injuring both his body and his soul. And he used to blame Socrates saying, that if he derived no advantage from Alcibiades he was foolish, and if he never derived any advantage from him he then deserved no credit. He used to say that the way to the shades below was easy; and accordingly, that people went there with their eyes shut. He used to blame Alcibiades, saying that while he was a boy he seduced husbands from their wives, and when he had become a young man he seduced the wives from their husbands. While most of the Athenians at Rhodes practised rhetoric, he himself used to give lectures on philosophical subjects; and to one who blamed him for this he said, "I have bought wheat, and I sell barley."

It was a saying of his that the inhabitants of the shades below would be more punished if they carried water in buckets that were whole, than in such as were bored. To a chattering fellow who was soliciting him for aid, he said, "I will do what is sufficient for you, if you will send deputies to me, and forbear to come yourself." Once when he was at sea in the company of some wicked men, he fell into the hands of pirates; and when the rest said, "We are undone, if we are known." "But I," said he, "am undone if we are not known." He used to say that self-conceit was the enemy of progress. Of a rich man who was mean and niggardly, he said, "That man does not possess his estate, but his estate possesses him." He used to say that stingy men took care of their property as if it was their own, but derived no advantage from it as if it belonged to other people. Another of his sayings was, that young men ought to display courage, but that old men ought to be distinguished for prudence. And that prudence was as much superior to the other virtues as sight was to the other senses. And that it was not right to speak of old age, at which every one is desirous to arrive. To an envious man who was looking gloomy, he said, "I know not whether it is because some misfortune has happened to you, or some good fortune to some one else." One thing that he used to say was, that a mean extraction was a bad companion to freedom of speech. For:--

It does enslave a man, however bold
His speech may be.1

And another was that we ought to keep our friends, whatever sort of people they may be, so that we may not seem to have been intimate with wicked men, or to have abandoned good men.

IV. Very early in his career he abandoned the school of the Academy, and at the same time became a disciple of Crates. Then he passed over to the sect of the Cynics, taking their coarse cloak and wallet. For what else could ever have changed his nature into one of such apathy? After that he adopted the Theodorean principles, having become a disciple of Theodorus the Atheist, who was used to employ every kind of reasoning in support of his system of philosophy. After leaving him, he became a pupil of Theophrastus, the Peripatetic.

V. He was very fond of theatrical entertainments, and very skilful in distracting his hearers by exciting a laugh, giving things disparaging names. And because he used to avail himself of every species of reasoning, they relate that Eratosthenes said that Bion was the first person who had clothed philosophy in a flowery robe.

VI. He was also very ingenious in parodying passages, and adapting them to circumstances as they arose. As for instance, I may cite the following:--

Tender Archytas, born of tuneful lyre,
Whom thoughts of happy vanity inspire;
Most skilled of mortals in appeasing ire.2

And he jested on every part of music and geometry.

VII. He was a man of very expensive habits, and on this account he used to go from city to city, and at times he would contrive the most amazing devices.

VIII. Accordingly, in Rhodes, he persuaded the sailors to put on the habiliments of philosophical students and follow him about; and then he made himself conspicuous by entering the gymnasium with this train of followers.

IX. He was accustomed also to adopt young men as his sons, in order to derive assistance from them in his pleasures, and to be protected by their affection for him. But he was a very selfish man, and very fond of quoting the saying, "The property of friends is common;" owing to which it is that no one is spoken of as a disciple of his, though so many men attended his school. And he made some very shameless; accordingly, Betion, one of his intimate acquaintances, is reported to have said once to Menedemus, "So Menedemus constantly spends the evening with Bion, and I see no harm in it." He used also to talk with great impiety to those who conversed with him, having derived his opinions on this subject from Theodorus.

X. And when at a later period he became afflicted with disease, as the people of Chalcis said, for he died there, he was persuaded to wear amulets and charms, and to show his repentance for the insults that he had offered to the Gods. But he suffered fearfully for want of proper people to attend him, until Antigonus sent him two servants. And he followed him in a litter, as Favorinus relates in his Universal History. And the circumstances of his death we have ourselves spoken of in the following lines:

We hear that Bion the Borysthenite,
Whom the ferocious Scythian land brought forth,
Used to deny that there were Gods at all.
Now, if he'd persevered in this opinion,
One would have said he speaks just as he thinks;
Though certainly his thoughts are quite mistaken.
But when a lengthened sickness overtook him,
And he began to fear lest he should die;
This man who heretofore denied the Gods,
And would not even look upon a temple,
And mocked all those who e'er approached the Gods
With prayer or sacrifice; who ne'er, not even
For his own hearth, and home, and household table,
Regaled the Gods with savoury fat and incense,
Who never once said, "I have sinned, but spare me."
Then did this atheist shrink, and give his neck
To an old woman to hang charms upon,
And bound his arms with magic amulets,
With laurel branches blocked his doors and windows,
Ready to do and venture anything
Rather than die. Fool that he was, who thought
To win the Gods to come into existence,
Whenever he might think he wanted them.
So wise too late when now mere dust and ashes,
He put his hand forth, Hail, great Pluto, Hail!

XI. There were ten people of the name of Bion. First of all, the one who flourished at the same time with Pherecydes of Syros, and who has left two books behind him, which are still extant; he was a native of Proconnesas. The second was a Syracusan, the author of a system of rhetoric. The third was the man of whom we have been speaking. The fourth was a pupil of Democritus, and a mathematician, a native of Abdera, who wrote in both the Attic and Ionic dialect. He was the person who first asserted that there were countries where there was night for six months, and day for six months. The fifth was a native of Soli; who wrote a history of Aethiopia. The sixth was a rhetorician, who has left behind him nine books, inscribed with the names of the Muses, which are still extant. The eighth was a Milesian statuary, who is mentioned by Polemo. The ninth was a tragic poet of the number of those who are called Tarsicans. The tenth was a statuary, a native of Clazomenae or Chios, who is mentioned by Hipponax.







1. This is a quotation from the Hippolytus of Euripides, v. 424.

2. I doubt if the wit of these parodies will be appreciated by the modern reader. The lines of Homer, which they are intended to parody, are:

Hô makar Atreïdê, moirêgenes olbiodaimôn. -Il. 3, 182.
hêe su Pêleidê, pantôn ekpaglotat' andrôn. - Il. v. 146.

The first of which is translated by Pope:

Oh, blest Atrides, born of prosperous fate,
Successful monarch of a mighty state!

The Greek parody in the text is :

Hô pepon Archyta, psallêgenes, olbiotyphe
Tês hypatês eridos pantôn empeirotat' andrôn.









Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Some, but not all, of Yonge's spellings of ancient names have been updated.

All of the materials at Peithô's Web are provided for your enjoyment, as is, without any warranty of any kind or for any purpose.










 Peithô's Web   Top Lives index